Over 100 years ago this week, the intelligence community failed while the administration wrongfully led Congress and the American public into war. If automobiles were popular in 1898, I wonder what clever slogans bumper sticker manufacturers would have invented to impugn William McKinley.
The front page headline of The New York Times for Feb. 16, 1898 read: “THE MAINE BLOWN UP.” Who blew it up? Then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt pointed fingers: “The Maine was sunk by an act of dirty treachery on the part of the Spaniards I believe,” he wrote.
On March 28, a fact-finding mission sent to Cuba reported that something outside the ship caused the explosion, clearing the U.S. Navy of responsibility and insinuating Spain was responsible for the deaths of 266 American sailors. McKinley gave into hawkish pressures, sought Congressional approval, and America declared war on Spain on April 25.
Whether internal accident or an external mine caused the explosion is still unknown. Today, we did not have to wait as long to test our pre-war intelligence in Iraq. To the surprise of almost everyone in the intelligence community, no one has found weapons of mass destruction.
Not to trivialize one of many reasons for going to War in Iraq — a recent honors thesis at the University of Illinois counted 27 — but incessant whining is fruitless. As pundits and politicians obsess over laying blame, opportunities for addressing the intelligence failure’s roots slip away.
The most recent media magnet is Paul R. Pillar, a former CIA National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. In an article in Foreign Affairs, Pillar charges, “The administration used intelligence not to inform decision-making, but to justify a decision already made.” He accuses the administration of “cherry-picking” from raw intelligence.
On CNN Sunday afternoon, Wolf Blitzer salivated at the prospect of Pillar admitting the administration directly pressured analysts to produce favorable intelligence supporting policy goals. Pillar declined, citing the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report and the Silberman-Robb Commission, which both absolved the administration of any such misdeeds. But Pillar admits, “The poisonous atmosphere reinforced the disinclination within the intelligence community to challenge the consensus view.”
Pillar’s situation is like that of former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, whom Bush critics embraced when he left the CIA and announced authorship of “Imperial Hubris.” I’m sure critics would have been less sympathetic to Scheuer had they actually read his book.
The present problem with political discourse is not Pillar’s article but the reaction to it. Administration critics are so excited by the prospect of a former high-ranking government official implicating the Bush administration that they overlook the potential for meaningful debate. Critics act as if this is the first time politicization has ever been an issue in the intelligence community. Robert Baer, a well-known and respected CIA field officer with 21 years of experience in the Middle East, told CNN, “[Politicization] is not peculiar to this White House. Pick a policy, go to the intelligence agencies, get your talking points.”
But back to Pillar and WMDs. Attempts to prove the President deliberately lied and misled the country are bound to fail, unless declassified documents decades from now prove otherwise. It is the reasons for the intelligence failures that warrant our attention, mainly the relationship between policymakers and intelligence analysts. Pillar argues for greater CIA independence in order to maintain supposed objectivity, a topic that held Blitzer’s attention for but a fraction of his interview.
In Washington, where proximity to power is the air government officials breathe, such action is ill-advised. Today, the intelligence analyst no longer spoon-feeds information to the policymaker. Proximity to policymaking is the best opportunity to remain vital, not the maintenance of the CIA’s mythical objectivity. As one CIA veteran wrote, “The key is not our objectivity … The key is our ability to put the political behavior that policymakers see into a larger cultural and historical context.”
We have the ability to thoroughly analyze our intelligence failures in the modern age, a luxury McKinley lacked following the Maine incident. But when we debate and analyze those failures, the motivation should not be political gain, but reasonable and progressive reform.
Sean Singer is a senior in Berkeley College.